All aTwitter about a power struggle in Uzbekistan

By bne IntelliNews November 7, 2013

Clare Nuttall in Astana -

As a power struggle in Uzbekistan intensifies, Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan's aging dictator, has taken to Twitter to accuse her enemies of launching a leadership struggle and, without a hint of irony, human rights abuses.

On November 4, Karimov tweeted that the security services have arrested some of her former bodyguards and either have subjected them to torture or will do so. "Today Khayot Sharifutdinov arrested former guards," she was reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) as saying, referring to Khayot Sharifkhujaev, chief of the internal security service, who is believed to be one of at least three rivals vying with her to succeed the 75-year-old President Islam Karimov, whose health has been the subject of intense speculation recently.

She later posted a doctor's note dated February 2, 2013 that described a person whose ribs had been broken. Karimova claimed the person, himself a member of the security services, had been beaten by internal state security, RFE said.

Those are the same security services that have kept her father in power for 23 years and on which she has been noticeably silent on until now, point out her critics.

These latest tweets follow others that were made in response to official probes into her business and charity activities, which are full of accusations against another contender in the succession struggle, National Security Service chief Rustam Inoyatov. Karimova has openly accused her rival of launching an attempt to become the country's leader, tweeting on November 1 that Inoyatov "has started his struggle to become Uzbekistan's next president."

She has also claimed to be the victim of an assassination attempt, writing that an unnamed attacker tried to poison her "with heavy metals like mercury". On November 4, her online campaign against Inoyatov continued, with accusations of "racketeering" and illegal trade in alcohol and tobacco connected to the security service.

The accusations follow a series of investigations targeting Karimova's assets and the shutdown of four television channels linked to her charitable organisation Fund Forum. TV-Markaz, NTT, Forum and SoFTS have been off the air since October 21. Initially, in an October 24 statement TV-Markaz claimed that the shutdown is "[d]ue to a switch to a new broadcasting format." However, Karimova later confirmed on Twitter that the channels had been closed down by the Uzbek press agency over violations of its rules.

The accounts of media holding company Terra Group - which is also linked to Karimova - have been frozen while an investigation into financial irregularities is underway, RFE/RL reported on October 30. There are also reports that Fund Forum is under investigation by several government agencies for alleged tax fraud. The investigations were unexpected because Karimova is believed to have immunity from prosecution, along with other members of the president's immediate family.

While Karimova's prolific Twitter feed has so far targeted Inoyatov, he is just one of several contenders - including Karimova herself - to succeed her father, with Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov believed to be the most likely candidate.

Despite the official silence on the issue, rumours emerged from Tashkent in mid-2012 that Karimov had actually selected Azimov, who effectively runs the Uzbek economy, as his preferred successor. Azimov controls the $11bn Republican Fund of Reconstruction and Development, where hard currency revenues from gas, cotton and other commodities are stashed. He has held a central role in the Uzbek financial sector since the 1990s when he headed the National Bank of Uzbekistan (NBU), which controlled almost all of the country's hard currency.

Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev is also a possible successor. A regional hakim (governor) until he was elevated to prime minister in 2003, Mirziyayev had retained the position for the last decade, making him Uzbekistan's longest-standing premier.

In March, a "dress rehearsal" for the succession was played out - mainly behind closed doors but also on Twitter and other websites - when the exiled head of the opposition People's Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU) published a rumour that Karimov had suffered a heart attack. However, after a week-long absence from public appearances that raised speculation he could even be dead, Karimov was shown on Uzbek state television meeting with Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov.

At that time, Azimov was the target of Karimova's Twitter accusations, as she sought to discredit him by publishing claims about "secret" and "not transparent" dealings connected to the construction of a solar cell plant at the Navoi free economic zone.

While Karimova has long been seen as a potential successor to her father, she is an outside candidate because of her deep unpopularity among both the Uzbek population and the country's elite. A US government cable published by Wikileaks called her "the single most hated person" in Uzbekistan, and dubbed her a "robber baron" who has "bullied her way into gaining a slice of virtually every lucrative business in the country."

After accumulating a vast fortune - estimated by Forbes at $570m - within Uzbekistan, she stepped away from domestic politics, taking on diplomatic roles in Europe and establishing herself as a fashion and jewellery designer. A member of the international jet set, she has released pop videos under the stage name Googoosha, as well as serving as Uzbekistan's ambassador to Spain and the UN. However, in July Karimova quit her position as Uzbekistan's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, saying she would "be able to concentrate more on Uzbekistan."

The Karimov family has been plunged into controversy recently. Karimova's cousin Akbarali Abdullaev was arrested in October on embezzlement and tax evasion charges, with the arrest order reportedly issued at the highest levels of government. Abdullaev was one of the country's most influential businessmen and a potential presidential candidate himself before his arrest.

In a further sign of family troubles, Karimov's younger daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, revealed a rift between the sisters in an interview with BBC Uzbek in September. Karimova-Tillyaeva, who is serving as Uzbekistan's ambassador to Unesco, claimed she had not spoken to her sister for 12 years. "There are no family or friendly relations between us," she said, also dismissing her sister's chances of becoming Uzbekistan's next president. "I would assess these odds as low."

The comments sparked a public family row, with Karimova using Twitter to accuse her sister of "destructive behaviour" and "ties to sorcerers."

In addition to the investigations into her business dealings within Uzbekistan, Karimova's business activities are coming under scrutiny in a growing number of European countries. A scandal surrounding payments made by Scandinavian telecommunications group TeliaSonera to Takilant, a Gibraltar-registered offshore company linked to Karimova, has claimed the head of the company's former CEO Lars Nyberg. Following an internal investigation, Nyberg resigned in February when it was revealed the company had failed to follow its own guidelines in acquiring 3G licences for its Uzbek subsidiary.

Meanwhile, in France a probe has been launched into Karimova's purchase of a €30m penthouse overlooking the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. French investigators found the purchase, made in 2009 at above market price, suspicious, according to Investigations have also been launched in Russia and Sweden. Opposition website Uznews speculates that after the freezing of her bank accounts in several countries, Karimova is virtually "penniless".

There is no history of a democratic handover of power in Uzbekistan, where Karimov has ruled uninterrupted since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, raising concerns about potential unrest. Dissent within the country has been stifled and unrest ruthlessly crushed. In 2005, government troops opened fire on rare mass demonstrations in the two of Andijan, killing over 500 people.

After the Andijan massacre, Karimov has become increasingly dependent on the army and security forces to shore up his position. At the same time, he has launched some political changes including increasing the powers of the parliament. Officially described as moves towards democratisation, they are more likely intended to reinforce Karimov's position against other members of the elite.

The changes have had no real impact on the Uzbek population, who have suffered from the country's isolation, high corruption and basic issues such as power shortages. A power struggle won't do much for them either.

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